Paving the Way

“Paving the Way” is a document created by Extension staff in Green and Lafayette counties to help agribusiness professionals start a conversation with producers about changes to an operation.

MONROE — Gathered around tables in the basement of the Green County Justice Center, two small groups of agribusiness professionals reviewed six different scenarios, discussing amongst themselves how they’d respond, what questions they’d ask and how they’d proceed in recommending resources depending on how producers answered the questions they posed.

The discussions were part of “Paving the Way,” a workshop and introduction to resources developed by Jackie McCarville, Extension Green County agriculture educator; Lori Wick, Extension Lafayette County 4-H youth educator; Josh Kamps, Extension Lafayette County agriculture educator; and Hayley Jordan, Extension Green County health and well-being educator, meant to aid in starting difficult conversations concerning changes to a farming operation.

“We weren’t sure how this was going to go but we knew we wanted to create a safe space for these discussions to happen,” Jordan said.

She explained how a discussion with her colleague a year ago led to the development of “Paving the Way,” a “roadmap” for agribusiness professionals to communicate with producers about the future of their operations, particularly during low-margin years. The working document includes three questions to ask producers, with three different avenues to explore.

The first question asks, “Do you have a passion for your operation or are you just going through the motions?”

The second question asks, “Is the operation financially strong enough to provide while making changes to the operation?”

The third question asks, “Can diversification be completed without taking on much additional debt?”

The three avenues to explore, depending on how the producer answers those questions, are “tune-up,” “merging lanes” or “under construction.”

If the producer answered yes to the above questions, an agribusiness professional may want to flip to the “tune-up” section of the document to explore minor modifications that can be made to the operation to increase profitability while continuing to depend upon the same revenue streams or the “merging lanes” section to explore bigger opportunities for new revenue streams.

If the producer answered no to the above questions, an agribusiness professional will want to flip to “under construction” section, although these questions are the hardest ones to think about as they include considerations such as cost of production, selling and moving, bankruptcy, farm succession and skill development in other areas.

“We’re really trying to get this to be a conversation piece for agriculture professionals,” McCarville said.

“People don’t go for help soon enough so if we can get people to think of options sooner, that’s our goal,” Jordan added.

McCarville and Jordan understand that some producers may not want to open up about their businesses, especially if a close relationship hasn’t been established, but they are hoping agribusiness professionals will feel comfortable leaving the “Paving the Way” document on their bulk tank or kitchen table to review and consider.

“Just be aware and be present,” Jordan said. “Listen without judgment and follow up.”

Kamps sees the “roadmap” resource as something that could be referenced and built upon with each meeting with a producer, continuing new and developing conversations around tough topics.

Tracy Brandel, a representative from the Wisconsin Farm Center, also spoke about the resources offered through the center. Vouchers are available for counseling services for farmers in distress, among other programs and resources offered.

“We will give them as many vouchers as we can because under all the paperwork, there are people,” Brandel said. “We don’t have money at the Center but we have resources and we hope those can start conversations with others, like ag lenders.”

She was glad she attended the workshop and plans to reference the “Paving the Way” document with producers.

“It warms my heart to know we opened this conversation a year ago and it’s going down all these channels,” Wick said.

Extension staff are planning a June meeting to discuss the effectiveness of the “roadmap” handout and how to continue to reach farmers who may be on the cusp of having a difficult discussion about their agricultural operation.

“I appreciate the scenarios because they are real and happening every day,” said Rene Johnson, an ag lender with Union Bank and Trust Co., Evansville, and a member of the Dairy Task Force 2.0. “These discussions aren’t just happening on farms anymore either. They are happening in our communities.”

“Paving the Way” is a free resource available online at https://green.extension.wisc.edu/agriculture/paving-the-way.